war on drugs

John Paul Rathbone

A lot of north Americans will get high on last night’s vote – not because they are celebrating the re-election of Barack Obama as president, but following the legalisation of marijuana in Colorado and Washington. In defiance of federal law, they have now become the first US states to legalise the possession and sale of marijuana for recreational use. Although Oregon voters rejected the amendment, it’s a ground-breaking move which will change the tone of the debate on international drugs policy, test the balance of power between US states and the Federal Government, and affect Mexican security.

Medical-use cannabis is already legal in several US states. What makes Amendment 64 significant is that it would remove the prohibition on the commercial production of cannabis. In Colorado, pot can now in theory be legally sold and taxed at state-licensed stores in a system similar to alcohol sales. Personal possession of up to 28 grams (1 oz) will be legal for anyone at least 21 years old.

To get a bead on what this might mean, this is further than Netherlands has gone. There, contrary to common perception, it is only the retail sale of 5 grams that is legal. Production and wholesale remains illegal, and the law is vigorously enforced. That is why the price of pot in Amsterdam “coffee shops” is “little different than the price in US dispensaries,” as the authors of “Marijuana legalisation: what everyone needs to know”, argue here

John Paul Rathbone

Mexican Federal police arrest men on suspicion of possessing drugs during an anti-narcotics operation in the Tepito district in Mexico City April 11, 2007. REUTERS/Daniel Aguilar

Anti-narcotic arrests in Mexico City. Reuters/ Daniel Aguilar

Growing calls from Latin America that it’s time to rethink the “War on Drugs” has lead to a near-intoxicating barrage of documents, books, speeches and studies on the subject. Here’s one of the latest – a US Senate report on “Reducing the US demand for illegal drugs”.

Given that some 50,000 people have died in Mexico over the past six years during that country’s battle against organised crime, and that the US spends some $190bn a year on drug enforcement, health care and addiction costs – equivalent to a quarter of its military budget – this is more than a fanciful “nice-to-have” idea. It is surely a must.

Three findings grabbed my attention. First, illegal drug use continues to rise in the US. At 9 per cent of the population, it is now at its highest rate in a decade.